No free radio

June 25, 1993

In the car, at home, at the office -- radios remain ubiquitous in American life. For listeners devoted to the commercial-free waves of public radio stations, the end of the fiscal year brings another couple of weeks of that seasonal discomfort known as membership drive.

In return for a few weeks each year of pleading and cajoling, listeners get a cornucopia of programming not available elsewhere on the dial. In Baltimore, WJHU-FM has established itself as the primary outlet for news from National Public Radio (NPR), in addition to talk shows, jazz and classical music. WBJC-FM plays an important role as the metropolitan area's chief source of classical music. WEAA-FM at Morgan State University and WTMD-FM at Towson State also have solid constituencies.

Clearly, the audiences for public radio are there. What is not so clear is the stability of the funding sources -- particularly for expensive programming like the news shows broadcast by NPR. Because of rising costs and changes in the way funding allocations are handled on the national level, more of the costs of NPR programming are falling on local stations. In Baltimore, that means a heavier burden -- and a more urgent note in the membership drives -- for WJHU, which already runs a lean operation. NPR affiliates around the country face similar problems.

At WJHU, this month's two-week on-air fund raising drive marks the first time the station has mounted three lengthy appeals during one year (not counting a shorter end-of-the-calendar-year drive). Individual members provide one-third of the station's budget, but only about 10 percent of public radio listeners ever contribute to a station.

Most public radio supporters agree that the weeks of fund-raising are worth the trouble, and that listeners should provide a significant portion of public radio costs. But as federal support for National Public Radio and its television cousin, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, becomes more precarious, public radio stations need a cushion of money that can tide them over in emergencies and that, someday, could help offset the costs of providing quality programming.

At the national level, NPR is already moving in this direction. The newly established NPR Foundation is now laying the groundwork for a national campaign to build an endowment that could enable the network to hold down the fees it charges local stations.

Public radio has long since proven its worth to communities around the nation. With in-depth news broadcasts, public affairs programming and all those hours of good music, public radio stations deserve stable financial support.

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